Recently the question came up at dinner with a mix of friends who are journalists, news junkies, sports fans and more-casual Olympics viewers. That led to a raucous debate, as I think it would at a lot of restaurant tables. The Olympics may be unique among sporting events in that there isn’t one principal audience for them. Instead, there are different, overlapping audiences who watch the games differently — and want news organizations to handle news about them differently.
The first Olympics audience is sports fans. You can tell members of this audience because they’re the ones mad at NBC. They want to watch events live, the way they watch other sports, and they complain that NBC is living in the past by showing many events only in prime time, hours after they’ve taken place.
Here’s their case, as articulated by Business Insider’s Henry Blodget: “We don’t want to watch NBC’s ‘Olympics show.’ We want to watch The Olympics. And like every other connected sports fan on the planet these days, we know exactly when the Olympics is taking place and what’s happening there — in real time. So, right now, for us, NBC isn’t the network that brings us the Olympics. It’s the network that prevents us from watching the Olympics.” (Business Insider later taught annoyed sports fans how to watch live video streams offered by Canadian Web sites, which requires making your computer look like it’s connecting to the Internet from Canada.)
But there’s another, bigger Olympics audience. This one contains sports fans, too – ones who only care about skiing and snowboarding every four years. But for the most part, this second audience is made up of people who aren’t normally sports fans. They like stories about the athletes and the setting and the suspense of the competition — for them, the Olympics is “a mini-series that happens to have some sports in it,” as Deadspin’s Dashiell Bennett puts it nicely.
How can you tell members of this audience? They’re the ones mad at news organizations.
For the most part, the folks in this audience don’t mind that the bulk of NBC’s Olympic coverage isn’t live. What they object to is spoilers, and how hard it is to avoid them. Today, maintaining a daylong news blackout means staying away from Web sites posting the results, news alerts sent as emails and text messages, and friends’ tweets and Facebook status updates. (There’s also the guy at the water cooler who doesn’t know you’re avoiding news.) The problem is summed up by Michael Rosenberg in Sports Illustrated: “If you want NBC’s coverage to seem suspenseful — if you want, in other words, to feel like a sports fan — then you have to build a tiny brick house, then take the last brick and hit yourself over the head until you’re unconscious.”
Fans in this predicament have asked news organization to help by not giving away the outcome of events in home-page headlines and summaries. The response, generally speaking, has been that news is news and will be reported as such. New York Times sports editor Tom Jolly, for instance, told public editor Clark Hoyt in response to reader complaints that “our job is to report the news. … [NBC] has made a business decision to show the highlights on a taped basis. We’re not beholden to presenting the news the way NBC does.”
Digital-media critic Dan Gillmor, meanwhile, commented that “the fact that the ombudsman of the New York Times needs to explain to readers why his newspaper reports actual news as it happens — and Olympic results are actual news — is a depressing commentary on our nation’s entertainment-driven culture. NBC bought U.S. TV rights to the Olympics, and NBC has chosen not to present live coverage. It wants to put the high-profile events on at night in the U.S. when it can score the biggest audience. It’s entirely about money, as the Olympics are in a general sense at this point. But to suggest that real news organizations should defer to NBC’s greed is beyond idiotic. It’s pathetic.”
I agree with Jolly and Gillmor in principle: News organizations shouldn’t let a network dictate how they cover events. But I think they’ve made the issue about NBC, when it’s not that simple. And by framing the issue that way, I think they’re doing readers a disservice.
To be clear, I think NBC is serving consumers poorly by not showing live events. (When people are faking Canadian IP addresses, it’s pretty clear that there’s a consumer need going unmet.) I doubt daytime broadcasts would do much to hurt viewership: Hardcore sports fans would watch live when they could, while casual Olympics fans would keep watching in prime time, probably joined by a fair number of sports fans who wanted to see events with family and friends or just relive the best moments.
But if that happened, news organizations would still have the same problem. Many people would still be unable to watch until prime time because of work or school. Those people would try to avoid spoilers, and when that failed they would still send emails to editors like Clark Hoyt.
Here’s a better way to handle this:
* Sportswriters should write on deadline and tweet as Olympic events unfold. But they should also tell their Twitter followers, Facebook fans and other readers ahead of time what their ground rules will be, so spoiler-sensitive readers can stop following them or stay away for a couple of weeks. (I wish Twitter let me specify that I want to follow someone but hide their tweets with specific hashtags, but that’s another column.)
* News organizations should either set up Olympics news alerts that are separate from general news alerts, or warn general-news subscribers that Olympics results will be included in emails, text messages and other communications.
* Sports pages should handle the Olympics in real-time like any other news, and news organizations should provide links to this Olympics coverage from their home pages. But home-page headlines, summaries and photos should be chosen and written to avoid spoilers.
* None of the above applies if an Olympics story breaks that is obviously of critical importance and/or general interest beyond the games – an athlete dying in competition, for instance.
The Olympics are news. But they’re an a odd form of news that people consume differently – equal parts live sporting event and time-shifted reality show – and news organizations should do more to take their unique nature into account. It’s bad practice to pretend events haven’t happened yet. But it’s bad business to train a large number of readers to exclude your home page from their daytime rounds for two weeks.
And really, the readers who wrote to Hoyt weren’t asking for much. They weren’t asking the Times to pretend events hadn’t happened yet. They were simply asking for the Times to not give everything away on the home page. That strikes me as a reasonable request. I wouldn’t call granting it eroding news judgment or kowtowing to a corporation. I’d call it good old-fashioned customer service.
Jason Fry is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at www.WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing (www.faithandfearinflushing.com), and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom (www.reinventingthenewsroom.com). Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jason.fry, or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jasoncfry.